Cheapskate's Guide wrote: Making Computers and the Internet Fun Again
For a while now, I have been seeing blog articles and social media posts about computers and the Internet not being fun anymore. Honestly, from time to time over the years, I have felt a little of that myself. Then last year, I began writing the code for my social media site, Blue Dwarf, and the process reminded me what made computers and the Internet fun in the first place. Adventure! The key ingredients in adventure are exploration, learning new things, and stretching to overcome obstacles. Something stops being fun when we are no longer learning, when we are no longer growing, when we are stuck in our comfort zones. This is true in the context of a job or a career. It is often true in our relationships with other people. It is true in our general search for meaning in our lives. And it is true in our hobbies. Hopefully we have hobbies, because they increase our enjoyment of life.
I do not believe most of us are psychologically adapted to being passively entertained non-stop for long periods of time. Sitting in front of a TV for too long becomes unpleasant. At least, it does for me. The best movie-watching experience for me comes after I have not watched any for a long time. Experiencing new things, learning new things, and creating new things makes life engaging and meaningful. Without these, fun loses it relevance and becomes boring.
My adventure with computers and the Internet has been a long one spanning decades and absorbing many thousands of hours of my time. Can I say the results have always been productive? No. But, what exploration is always productive? The point is that over the decades I have mostly enjoyed the learning process. It has not been dull. Painful sometimes. Disappointing sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. But, not dull.
Back in the late 2000's, I switched from using Windows nearly full time with the occasional side exploration of Linux to using Linux every day as my main operating system and largely abandoning Windows outside of work. My journey with Linux has been a long and often frustrating one. It has also been adventurous as I have tried many Linux distributions and open source programs, some of which have worked better than their Windows equivalents and some of which have worked less well. Some have been outright disasters. But, as Linux has become more capable, robust, and useful, I have grown to rely on it more and more.
Creating my first website, the Cheapskate's Guide, came after a decade of struggling to become proficient enough with Linux to use it every day for nearly everything I do on a computer. As I look back over nearly 5 years of building and hosting the Cheapskate's Guide, I see a similar pattern. In the beginning, I did not know if having my own website would be of any value to me or anyone else. I did not know if self-hosting it on a Raspberry Pi would be a smart thing to do or even if it would work at all. I did not know what software to use. I did not know much about HTML, and I knew nothing about CSS or PHP. I learned, and I applied my new knowledge to writing all of the code on the Cheapskate's Guide. I also had to learn how to do everything associated with the day-to-day operation of my website. I learned the tricks required to occasionally serve tens of thousands of web pages a day over a very slow Internet connection. I learned--and I am continuing to learn--how to block web-crawling robots. I learned everything I need to know to keep my website running efficiently. This has all been a wonderful experience.
This experience has been an adventure in which I have learned that I like many aspects of building websites and blogging, but I struggle with others. I have found that having a website has value to me. Among other things, it keeps me engaged in a good cause: sharing knowledge that helps other people save money on computers and Internet services. Despite some myopic comments to the contrary on Hacker News and other places, my blog also has value to some who read it. I was recently reminded of this by a long comment posted by Michael from Kinshasa in which he related that he has friends who struggle to find inexpensive computers that they need to improve their computer literacy, so they can apply for better jobs. I expect this is also the case in many other developing countries. Although I find meaning in my efforts to help others and like many of the technical aspects of running a blog, I have also discovered that putting out new articles regularly can be a huge amount of work. And, I have learned that not knowing what I will write next often produces anxiety. After putting out over two hundred articles, sometimes coming up with new things to write about is not easy.
About a year and four months ago, I decided that the time had come to create my first serious social media site on the web. At this point, I had grown weary of being kicked off of site after site for reasons that I sometimes understood but more often did not. I had had enough of good articles on which I had worked hard being labeled as spam on Big Tech's social media sites. I craved some stability as well as a more accepting place to post links to my articles. I did not know if anyone would have the slightest interest in my new site, but I did know that many people were less than overjoyed with big Tech's idea of what social media should be. So, I began writing the code, and this lead to a brand new adventure.
Writing the PHP code for Blue Dwarf was exciting. I wrote the first three thousand lines in 14 days on very little sleep, and the site went live on the Internet a few days later with the barest amount of functionality that I can imagine a social media site having. Honestly, I could not sleep because I was so excited by the first leg of the journey on which I had just embarked. I was waking up in the early hours of the morning with great ideas floating through my mind, and I could not go back to sleep until I had at least written them down. I regularly climbed out of bed at two or three AM and began to code.
Over the next few months, users gradually discovered Blue Dwarf and created accounts. Most posted only one or two comments and then disappeared. A few were a bit annoyed by the lack of functionality, but others understood what I was doing, supported my efforts, and continue to be active to this day. Blue Dwarf never experienced a flood of users, but I never expected it to. Despite our small numbers (still below 200 registered users as I write this), we have had many interesting and enlightening conversations. And, I feel a sense of pride (in a good way, I think) that I made another modest improvement in my life and the lives of a few others by deciding to ignore Big Tech's walled gardens and blaze a new trail to something that I hope and believe will be better.
I began writing Blue Dwarf's code from scratch partly because I was inventing my own approach that was leading to the type of social media site that I wanted--not the type that big tech wants. I had no one telling me what to do or how to do it. I had no template to follow. Sure, I could have imitated other developers' code, but I do not think that would have been nearly as much fun as figuring things out for myself. This was all new to me. This was a learning experience in which I was standing at the edge of the dark unknown with a flashlight in hand and gradually moving forward one tentative step at a time, discovering new solutions to new problems with each step. I learned what worked and what did not. Users' comments helped me to debug the code, because they were often seeing problems on their computers that I was not seeing on mine. Many users also had good ideas for improvements to the site. I found better, faster, less CPU-intensive approaches than many of my original solutions. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote Blue Dwarf's code, and gradually it grew in capability, effectiveness, and elegance. And, it still continues to improve.
While engaged with all of my own website activity, I also began to more intentionally explore the Internet. I learned that no one was writing detailed enough descriptions of any of the so-called dark networks that can be accessed through the Internet. The only way to see what was there and really understand it was to explore. So, I spent months doing that, just to see what I could find. Months turned into years. As a result, I now see that the dark web is not the scary place that the mainstream news media usually portrays it as. On the contrary, I see how some of these networks can be useful and sometimes even empowering. And unfortunately, I also see that some of them are a waste of my time.
Other than providing the computer on which I write my code and blog articles and on which I access the Internet, Big Tech has not been very involved in any part of my adventure. I did not wait for Big Tech to give me permission to learn about Linux, to create a website, or to explore the wide expanse of the Internet far beyond the corporate-controlled walled gardens. I did not wait for Big Tech to write an app for that. I cringe at the thought. Thankfully, I ignored what mainstream news media said about the dangers of the darknet and all the reasons consumers should not self-host their own websites from home, and I began exploring and experimenting for myself. I ignored all those voices and struck out on my own into the unknown, and that has been a large part of what has continued to make computers and the Internet fun for me.
The question for me now is how to maintain the fun. I was recently watching "Levelonetechs" on YouTube and noticing Wendell's unfeigned enthusiasm for the topics he covers. Not only does he have an encyclopedic knowledge of the present technology, but as he calmly presents information to his viewers, from time to time he interjects playful side comments that convey the depth of his appreciation for the topics he is expounding upon. The tone of his presentation suggests to me that he is on the same type of adventure with computers that I am. The fact that many of the topics he presents are somewhat new to me tells me that my own adventure is not over.
If you are finding computers or the Internet dull, the fault is likely yours. Learn what you may be doing wrong and correct it. Begin learning again. Begin exploring again. And, yes, begin looking for things that frustrate you because you are not good at them. If an area of the Internet exists that you have always wanted to explore but you have not had the time, or you have been afraid, take courage and make the time. Put the fear behind you, and start exploring. Climb over the wall of your favorite walled garden, and have a new adventure. If you have become complacent in your use of Windows or Android, learn to use them better or learn to use a new operating system. If your cellphone is your only gateway to the Internet, begin using a "real" computer. Begin using a new Internet browser, or several, and decide which one you like best. Learn to use a new word processing program or a new movie-watching app. Find open-source applications to replace your current proprietary ones from Big Tech. Learn how to use bitcoin. Install a cryptocurrency miner on your laptop for fun and try some mining, even if is unprofitable. Not everything is about money. If you have never experimented with a Raspberry Pi computer, buy one after the prices come down some more, and experiment with it as a desktop computer or a home theater PC or a file server or something else. Learn a programming language and begin writing code that could conceivably take market share away from Big Tech. Build a desktop computer and build it exactly according to your specifications, according to the purpose you have in mind. By so doing, bypass Big Tech's offerings that employ built-in obsolescence, cloud computing, and other techniques that are designed to extract the maximum amount of money from you. Make your new computer beautiful or ugly, fast or slow. Install a giant hard drive or the smallest one that can hold an operating system. Build a computer that is uniquely yours that no one else on earth owns (especially Big Tech). Build your own email server and begin an email campaign for a worthy cause or for your new business. Create a website and post your thoughts for the world to read. Learn how to protect your website from web-crawling robots and DDOS attacks. Start an online store and begin selling something. Initiate a different type of online service and begin attracting customers. The possibilities for exploration, learning, and the personal growth that results from them are limitless.
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